Community celebrates the life of Mayor Steve Martin
By Melissa Chavez
– On Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., members of the community gathered at the Paso Robles City Park gazebo for a community celebration of life to commemorate Steven W. Martin, mayor of Paso Robles, who passed away on August 14, 2023, after a relentless nine-month fight with cancer. Steve served the City of Paso Robles as a council member in 2012, before he was appointed mayor in 2014.
Among those assembled were the mayor’s family, fellow public servants, colleagues, and lifelong friends. Mayor John Hamon, who was recently appointed to serve out the remainder of Mayor Martin’s term, introduced Paso Robles Airport Commission member Tony Gaspar. After welcoming the crowd, he stated that Mayor Martin, “was a huge supporter of our aviation community and the Paso Robles Airport. We would like to honor the mayor in a way that we pilots know best. Please cast your eyes to the northeastern skies for the missing man formation.”
High above the heart of the city, honored guests and community members gazed silently and intently as an array of airplanes from Estrella Warbirds approached. Gaspar signaled the aircraft on a portable radio, “Eagle Two, break away.” As the aircraft passed, they cast fleeting shadows below. Gaspar spoke once more into the radio: “Mayor Martin, Godspeed, sir.”
An opening prayer led by Reverend Josh Zulueta, lead pastor of First United Methodist Church of Paso Robles, followed, offering both comfort and encouragement that, “even in the midst of our grief, I give joyous thanks to You for the wonderful life of our friend, Steve.” Guitarist Jim Highland performed the first of two of Mayor Martin’s original compositions during the service.
Mayor Hamon directed his first words to his friend, saying, “Steve Martin, there will never be another one of you,” before addressing the assembly. “From my point of view, the essence of Steve’s life was service to others. When I think about the gift of time we are given on this earth, I can’t imagine a more rewarding or selfless act in making one’s life worthwhile than to serve others. Beyond being a good friend and colleague, he was a good leader who showed great integrity in decision-making, a necessary quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.
“His personal humility was a modest view of his own importance to so many others. He had a formidable passion for the work the council does and also displayed empathy and understanding—and for less fortunate Roblans that needed our additional help and support in their lives. He was a strong communicator and was inquisitive. He liked finding out more about things. And I think most importantly, Steve Martin was a visionary and believer of what Paso Robles could be in the future. Among his many ideas, ‘SpacePort, our gateway to the stars,’ was his greatest vision.
“As sworn officials, part of our oath includes a statement that I know Steve felt very strongly about. And that is the promise: That we shall leave the city in a better condition than it was when first entrusted to us. I believe Steve’s sworn oath, with his many years of dedicated service to our city, was truly accomplished.”
Ty Lewis, City Manager of Paso Robles, described Steve as a man of “unwavering dedication and profound compassion.” He said, “Mayor Martin didn’t just leave us with a tangible improvement or two or advancements, he left us with the spirit of unity, a blueprint of mutual respect, and collaboration between the community, the city staff, and our first responders who work tirelessly to safeguard our well-being. His vision, his actions have sown seeds of growth and development that will continue to bear fruit for generations to come. Mayor Martin invested in the foundations of our community, fortifying the bonds of trust and cooperation between our residents and the men and women in uniform.
“Mayor Martin wasn’t just a public figure, he was a beacon of hope, a symbol of resilience, and a repository of love and respect for the people of Paso Robles. His every effort, his every endeavor was a step toward creating a community where everyone felt seen, heard, and valued. His genuine love for the community and his vision of a united Paso Robles are the cornerstones of his legacy, which we are all entrusted to uphold and perpetuate.”
John Peschong, SLO County Supervisor, District 1, said that despite their political differences, he and Steve began to bond while conversing about how they were each married in Shandon. The supervisor recalled Steve saying, “We can disagree on issues. We just don’t need to be disagreeable.”
On the wall of the County Supervisors’ office hangs a Code of Civility, initiated by Steve, which was signed by seven mayors. Among the principles espoused are, “Listen first, respect different opinions, and disagree constructively.”
Bill Britton, Vice President of Information Technology at Cal Poly University, shared about Steve’s passion project. “Mayor Martin’s desire for a Paso Robles Spaceport is more than just a dream. It’s a vision for the future of our community. As Mayor Martin used to remind us, Paso Robles was founded by a pioneer spirit. That pioneer spirit transcends now into space.”
Wendy Lewis, CEO of ECHO (El Camino Homeless Organization), spoke of Mayor Martin’s long-held passion for the underserved population in Atascadero and how he spent many overnights volunteering with Tom O’Malley when board members were part of keeping the shelter running. Wendy credited Mayor Martin for ECHO’s expansion into Paso Robles.
“His legacy is offering a safe place for the men, women, and children of Paso Robles who need the services we provide. Picture, right now, kids playing on a playground that our Rotarians helped us build, getting a nutritious meal — ready to come into a room to have a safe place to meet. That is Mayor Martin’s legacy.”
Frank Mecham, former mayor of Paso Robles, sent his regrets in a letter that described Steve Martin as “a great mayor, a trusted colleague, and a wonderful friend” and cited Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If,” filled with qualities that he felt personified Steve’s character. Mayor Hamon read the last verse:
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
Former Atascadero mayor Tom O’Malley, a lifelong friend of Mayor Martin, shared memories about their childhood and considered how their paths often ran together and parallel to one another – as schoolmates and high school bandmates who played at an NFL halftime show between the New York Giants vs. the Los Angeles Rams to a standing ovation, as fathers who celebrated their children’s milestones, in working together as self-described “Dos Alcaldes,” or “two mayors” of two cities – Martin in Paso Robles, and O’Malley in Atascadero – and welcoming O’Malley’s successor, Heather Moreno, mayor of Atascadero, into the fold. They shared their common bond in celebration of Steve and Heather’s partnership to bring improved broadband access to North San Luis Obispo County, and they met regularly as friends.
O’Malley reminisced when he and Martin served dinner at ECHO homeless shelter, read stories to the children, and stayed the night as chaperones, ready to help with breakfast the next day.
“Months later, a woman recognized me while shopping downtown and said she had stayed at the shelter with her daughter. She was impressed and encouraged by all the community volunteer support, including two mayors!” O’Malley recounted. “ She had since found a job and an apartment and would always be thankful for the help she had received. Later, when Steve saw the opportunity to expand ECHO into Paso Robles, it became one of his top priorities.
“A day came when I learned that (my wife) Peggy had cancer. I believed she might only have months to live and I was a basket case. The first person I called was Steve. His first words were, ‘My calendar is clear. I’m a phone call away. How can I help?’ We struggled together through the next year, through misdiagnoses, painful medical treatment, and finally some resolution. Peggy had an inoperable tumor but chemo began working and we had a miraculous reprieve. We were all feeling some relief until I received a similar call from Steve. He had cancer. My first words were, ‘I’m a phone call away. How can I help?’… We had always talked about politics and religion, and yet still always remained friends. Politics had little importance now. Steve’s concern was for Jennifer, truly his best friend and greatly loved wife. Like any good husband, he wished he could have had more time to prepare. Most of all, he wanted more time with her.”
Another lifelong friend, Gere Sibbach, recalled moving to Atascadero in 1964 as an eighth grader, playing in the Atascadero High School Band with Steve, graduating in 1969, and attending college together but really wanting to be rock stars. Sibbach described Steve as “a critical pinch hitter in all our combos. He played guitar, bass, clarinet, or saxophone. He sang harmony and, occasionally, lead vocals. He was a remarkable writer and journalist.” At a summer resort in northern Wisconsin where they played, “Steve met the love of his life, Jennifer, who was working at the same resort. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Jennifer moved to Nebraska to serve as a Vista volunteer. One year later, she joined Steve in California, and they were married. They were together for over fifty years.
“Most of you know that both Steve and I became local elected officials – Steve was a council member and mayor of Paso Robles, while I was the county auditor-controller, and now the treasurer at City of Atascadero but it’s undeniable that the City of Paso Robles benefited greatly from Steve’s leadership and determination. But, to me, Steve Martin was much more than a great mayor. He was a devoted family man that dearly loved his wife, children, and their grandchildren. He was a great friend to me and countless others. I always admired his integrity and his courage up until the end of his battle with serious illness. It’s my honor to speak to you about Steve. I will truly miss him.”
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening was when Jennifer Martin, Steve’s wife, stood at the lectern surrounded by her daughters, Nora and Jamie, and Carrie, whom Steve regarded as a spiritual daughter. Jennifer shared a quote by singer Jon Bon Jovi, “Map out your future, but do it in pencil.”
“The last time I was in this gazebo was in early December of 2022,” Jennifer said. “We were here to celebrate the Christmas lighting of the trees. It was a beautiful event, a real Bedford Falls, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ moment. And I remember saying to Steve, “Isn’t it wonderful that you get to be mayor of this great town?’ And he agreed. We assumed we’d be back the following Christmas. Had you told us at that moment that it would be one of the last times he would be able to attend a public event in Paso Robles in person; had you told us that nine months later he would be gone; and I, his wife, who has forever avoided public speaking like the plague, would be the one speaking into the crowd, neither of us would have believed it.”
Jennifer continued, citing a passage she wrote during Steve’s last day at Stanford University Medical Center. “We had finally been told that there wasn’t room for an optimistic prognosis. The cancer had spread and he was too weak to survive the treatment. It was suggested that we contact hospice. As he slept in his hospital bed, I felt compelled to write the following. When he awoke, he asked to read it, just as he did several more times before his last day. It meant a lot to him and I’m so glad I wrote it.
“My tribute to Steve: How can so many people think I’m strong? I find that I’m a mushy puddle of tears these days. So many buttons to push me over the edge – good memories, bad memories, thoughts of the future we assumed we’d have together instead of apart.
“Dr. Ellison described us as a couple, as two wisteria vines that have grown together. How could our intertwined branches now take such different paths? We always knew but never faced the fact that one or the other of us would eventually have to leave the other behind. But, hopefully, not so soon! Steve promised that I could go first. He didn’t want me to be left behind, grieving. Unlike other promises, this appears to be one he won’t be able to keep. We had promised each other for years that someday, we would meet on the other side of the moon, and we’ll keep that promise. He will leave behind a huge hole in my life, our children’s and grandchildren’s lives, those of his birth family and his friends, and our community.
“I think of all the songs and books never written, the community projects left with no one to inspire them or even imagine them. If I had to imagine his final quote, it would probably be, ‘Too bad, there were so many things left to learn.’ He was a renaissance man, husband, father, grandfather, brother, friend, Christian servant, playwright, actor, musician, composer, artist, reporter, editor, author, public servant, computer programmer, and radiophile – he dearly loved radio and started his own radio stations. He truly is the voice of Paso.”
Tom O’Malley concluded the service by reading Mayor Martin’s last public message to Paso Robles, dated July 16, 2023, which can be viewed in its entirety on this page.
Steve’s message concluded,
“Now, as always, I hold all of you and our community in my heart, urging you to let your differences be subordinate to your desire to care for one another. Remember to stay informed, stay involved, and stay strong, Paso Robles. God bless you all and farewell.”
Video of portion of memorial service uploaded by Facebook user Martha Jimenez: